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An anecdote from the Tang dynasty about hiding the Big Dipper


As an extensive reader, Monk Yixing [683-727] was infinitely knowledgeable and excelled in numerology, mining what’s in the deep and keeping [in mind] what was in the past. None of the scholars of his day were able to fathom [his depth].


[He] spent his childhood in poverty. His neighbour Madam Wang provided for him in one way or another with some tens of thousands [cash]. During the era of Kaiyuan [713-741], Yixing won the emperor’s respect and patronage. None of his words would meet with any objection. [Yixing] always wanted to pay his neighbour back.


Before long, Madam Wang’s son committed a murder. Before the filing of the lawsuit was completed, she visited Yixing to seek his help. Yixing said, “Madam, had you requested gold or silk, I would have repaid you tenfold. [But now] His Majesty enforces the law, it is difficult to plead [for exoneration]. What can [I] do?” Madam Wang pointed at him, damning him, “How useless it is to know this monk!” Yixing followed in her wake to apologise, yet [she] never turned back.


Having calculated in his heart that there were hundreds of workers in the Spherical-Heaven Temple,[1] Yixing had them empty his chamber and place a huge urn in the middle. Then [he] secretly selected two permanent servants and gave them cloth sacks, saying, “There is an abandoned garden in some corner of some quarter. You sneak in and wait there. From noon to dusk, some things should be coming over, seven in total.[2] Seize them all. You will be beaten if you miss one.”


The servants went there as instructed. After the you double-hour [5-7 pm], a bunch of pigs came over as predicted. The servants got them all and returned. Yixing was greatly delighted and had [the pigs] put in the urn. [He] covered [the urn] with a wooden lid, sealed [it] with Six-One paste,[3] and inscribed tens of red Sanskrit words which none of his disciples could fathom.


At dawn, an imperial commissioner knocked on [Yixing’s] door and hastily summoned [him]. [As he] arrived at the side palace, Emperor Xuanzong [of Tang, 685-762, ruling 712-756] ushered [him] in, asking, “The Grand Astrologer reported on the Big Dipper’s disappearance last night. What kind of omen is this? Master, do you have any exorcism to use against it?”


Yixing said, “Mars once disappeared during the Northern Wei [386-535]. Now the Lord’s Carriage[4] is missing, which has never happened before. Heaven is giving Your Majesty a serious warning. As a rule, if common men and women cannot take up their [usual] positions, frost sets in [even] during the worst drought. What resonates with consummate virtues is the ability to draw back and let go. What resonates the most is perhaps the burial of rotten bodies and the release of those in chains! From a Buddhist point of view, hatred undermines all virtues, whereas mercy subdues all demons. In my humble opinion, no measure is better than a general amnesty for all-under-Heaven.” Emperor Xuanzong followed his advice.


The next evening, the Grand Astrologer reported that one star of the Big Dipper had shown up. After seven days, all was back to normal. [I,] Chengshi,[5] think this incident is rather dubious. However, it is so widely circulated that [I] feel obliged to record it.

* From Duan Chengshi 段成式 (803?-863), Youyang zazu 酉陽雜俎 (Sibu congkan chubian 四部叢刊初編 vol. 469, Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1919), 1.8b-9b:

[1] The word huntian 渾天 (spherical heaven) refers to the cosmological theory in ancient China that imagines the sky as round as an egg that wraps the earth. [2] Ancient Chinese astrology was based on the belief that different areas of the sky corresponded to specific areas on earth. This passage indicates that Yixing calculated the movement of the seven brightest stars of the Big Dipper and their exact corresponding location on earth. [3] Liuyi ni 六一泥 (Six-One paste) originated from Daoist alchemy, and there are several theories and records about its concept and formulation (which can contain more than six or seven ingredients). In Daoist practice, this paste is usually used as furnace sealant. [4] In ancient China, the Big Dipper was also perceived as the carriage of the Lord of Heaven, hence its alternative name diche 帝車 (Lord’s Carriage). [5] This refers to Duan Chengshi 段成式 (803?-863) who included this anecdote in his book Youyang zazu 酉陽雜俎.

Detail of a relief carving from the Wu Family Shrine in Jiaxiang, Shandong (2nd century), showing the Big Dipper as a carriage. The image includes the seven brightest stars of the Big Dipper and the star Alcor (fu 輔) next to the sixth bright stars (Mizar, top right corner in the image above).

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